On Thursday, October 4th, CU School of Arts held a staged play reading of Tennis in Nablus, a profound piece on Palestinian identity by playwright and poet, Ismail Khalidi. Bwog’s congenial cosmopolitan, Rae Binstock, savored this masterpiece at Miller Theater.
Today, Palestine is a word that has no reflection in the mirror. A Palestinian passport is recognized by neither immigration nor customs; a Palestinian house is part of a battlefield; a Palestinian person is a refugee. Since the founding of Israel in 1948, the Arab population of a once well-defined country has been struggling to salvage something whole from their cultural and historical pile of rubble.
Tennis in Nablus, a new play by Ismail Khalidi, takes place in 1939—otherwise known as the last decade of Palestine existence. British colonialism, a wave of Zionist immigrant from European Jews fleeing the German regime, and a vacuum of strong central leadership have left the people of Palestine with the options of either revolt or backing down. Through the fraught division of a Palestinian family over this grim choice, Khalidi explores the humanity of what is both inevitable and impossible: the elimination of an entire country.
The story follows Yusuf, a revolutionary recently released from prison, as he returns home to see his wife and nephew. The former is a writer who uses a pseudonym (“Mohammad Ali Ba-Bars”) to publish her fiery revolutionary rhetoric. The latter, Tarick (who the elderly servant wryly calls “Mr. Rick”) is an Anglophile “collaborator,” wealthy from his dealings with rich Jews and the British military occupiers and disdainful of his uncle’s agitating ways. When Yusuf and Tarik are imprisoned together in the British garrison, they find themselves pressed into service as ball boys on the officers’ tennis courts. Chained together at the ankle, the nationalist Yusuf squats on the ground while Tarik desperately attempts to collect the tennis balls, tripping and falling on his face as both his uncle and his tormentors laugh and goad him. The metaphor is hardly easy to miss: there is no escaping the devil, there is only the decision of how to face him.
“We will be the new foreigners, nomads in our land,” predicts Yusuf to a beaten and despondent Tarik. This loss of dignity—of a right to self, of belonging and inhabiting—is really the stake in Tennis in Nablus. The history of oppression in the world is woven into the fabric of one place and time: Mexican revolutionary Emiliano Zapata pays Yusuf a ghostly visit in prison, while the soldiers Rajib and Michael, respectively Indian and Irish, represent the British legacy of colonialism and imperial appropriation. The wry, lively humor of the writing alleviates but never totally distracts from a sense of crushing fate, as more and more the characters witness the coming of a storm. Mr. Hirsch, the spokesperson for Zionist Jews buying land as they flee from Germany and Poland, sadly reflects that “[Palestine] will be smothered and strangled…this is not true love, but possession.”
History has shown us that Palestine did not survive the assaults on its identity. Tennis in Nablus is a somber, self-aware piece of art that captures both the first flickers of despair and the immediate reaction of fierce hope that characterize a losing battle. “Maybe things are looking up” is the last line of the play. Whether or not this is true, saying those words is sometimes half the fight.
Ismail Khalidi via The Heyman Center